Schmuck: Ravens' road to the playoffs might not be as smooth as it looks

Let’s all agree that the Ravens couldn’t hope for a smoother path to the playoffs than the one that has presented itself over the final weeks of the regular season.

They need to win the remaining three games on their schedule to assure themselves of a berth in the playoffs and they will play those games against teams that own three of the worst records in the AFC, which should be comforting for fans of a team that has overcome all sorts of obstacles to put itself in this position.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that it’s still going to be a bumpy ride.

Nothing has come easy for the Ravens this season and the events of the past weekend only reinforced the notion that there is no way to predict what’s going to happen during this year of playing dangerously in the NFL.

Did anybody think that the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers would play the wildest offensive game of the week last Sunday night?

Could anyone have suspected the New England Patriots would look so — pardon the expression — deflated on Monday night against a Miami Dolphins team that was absolutely crushed by the slumping Ravens on “Thursday Night Football” in late October?

Of course, the Ravens should beat the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland. Everybody else has. Of course, they should take care of business against the three-win Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium next week. And really, does anyone think the Cincinnati Bengals will even show up here on New Year’s Eve?

There’s some logic there. This is not the same Ravens team that lost four of five games before that 40-0 victory over Miami sparked a midseason turnaround. Even in the wake of last week’s heartbreaking loss to the Steelers, it was obvious that Joe Flacco and the offense had taken the kind of step forward that might make the Ravens a formidable playoff team.

NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth acknowledged that during Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh, pointing out that “nobody wants to see the Ravens” in the playoffs, but they have to get there first.

If they do — and they have any trouble dispensing with any of their last three opponents — then they will face a new set of questions about their viability in the postseason. They’re 0-5 this season against teams that are certain or very likely to be in the playoffs.

There has been a lot of talk over the past week about the infamous 2007 loss to the winless Dolphins that helped seal the fate of former coach Brian Billick. You’ve also probably heard the term “trap game” discussed almost daily while we media types look for reasons why the winless Browns might overwrite the Ravens’ playoff narrative.

This will be no trap game. The Ravens might’ve been vulnerable to overconfidence if they had held on to beat the Steelers, but there’s no chance of that now. If the Browns win Sunday’s game, it will be because that wasn’t the real Ravens offense against the Steelers. If the Ravens lose, it will be because that was the real Ravens defense at Heinz Field.

And if the Ravens lose, they might still make the playoffs with a 9-7 record because of the complicated tiebreaker system, but would be in much better position to do that if they lose to the Browns than either of their other two remaining opponents since Cleveland is the only one that is not a common opponent with the 7-6 Buffalo Bills.

The Colts also have shown they won’t lie down. They nearly beat the Steelers and also played one-score games against both the Tennessee Titans and Bills over their past five games.

It’s possible that a loss to either of those teams won’t make any difference. The Bills still play the Patriots and have two games against Jay Cutler and the rejuvenated Dolphins, so the Ravens could still lose one game and be safe.

The suspense is just starting to build. If you’ve got a seat belt on that La-Z-Boy, you might want to fasten it.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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